Opinion » Bill Cope

Up Into Uglier

Cope pans a gold town


Okay, I get the part where some people are so swept up in the spirit of liberty that they must flee the constrictions of flatland living, move into the forests and hills, and scatter everything that doesn't fit inside the house around the yard so's we can all see it when we drive by. It's not my idea of what a democratic society's ultimate goal is, but hey, as long as I'm free enough to point out how their little pieces of heaven look like lazy monkeys live there, I guess I can accept them being free enough to clutter up the scenery with their derelict vehicles, broken down kitchen appliances and that collection of bald tires they've been saving for gawd knows what.

Only, good honk, let's not presume to call it a "tourist attraction," okay?

Had my brother-in-law not come to visit, I would have had no reason to drive up to Idaho City, and therefore, I possibly might have gone forever without saying anything about how sloppy folks seem to get when they fulfill their dream of living a la Jeremiah Johnson in the woods, only with a satellite dish.

But Eli had never been to the hills, understand? Like the rest of my in-laws, he's lived most of his life in big cities back East. In fact, most of the R family now calls Tampa home, and if you've never spent time in the Sunshine State, allow me to explain that a Floridian's idea of "the hills" are the berms they put around muck-filled sink holes to keep the alligators from getting out.

So it's only natural that my wife and I regard a trip to the hills as the whipped cream on the cocoa whenever one of them comes to visit. Sure, we take them to see downtown Boise, if for no other reason than to get out of Meridian for a few hours. But when a feller has lived in Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa as Eli has, downtown Boise isn't quite as stunning an experience as it might be to another feller, fresh from, say, Marsing.

Besides, if you want to give visitors a taste of Idaho that'll linger on their tongues for a while, it's got to be the mountains. I'll never forget the time 15 years ago when we drove my wife's parents up to McCall. I tell you, by the time we got to Banks, their socks were plumb knocked off. It wasn't just "the hills" that impressed them so mightily. You got the trees, the river, the fresh piney aroma, the curvy roads, raw wood furniture in roadside lodges and hamburgers the size of Frisbees ... it's that total mountain zeitgeist we Idahoans take for granted, and Ma and Pa R were oohing and aahing all the way there. As for me, it was a splendid day. There's nothing quite like showing off something you're proud of.

Brother Eli came late in the year, mid-November, so I was anticipating the trip even more than usual. Late fall isn't Boise Valley's shining hour, maybe you've noticed? Everything turns a monochrome brown, the trees look like dead weeds and the only color to be seen along the road sides is the flash of Sheriff's Department jailbirds in their festive orange out picking up discarded Big Gulp cups. All in all, this time of year Boise and surrounding communities look like they've been coated with a thin layer of dung--hardly the impression I wanted to leave with a man from the land of silver sand, azure seas and Busch Gardens.

Plus, as you'll recall, for a solid week there we were dampened in the folds of one of our lovely inversions. Day after day of fog not quite thick enough to obscure the full scope of the brown blight, and this was the week Eli came.

Midweek, as I drove him into town along the Connector, I said, "Don't you worry, Eli. Come Saturday, we're going to take you to Idaho City, above all of this. Yup, we're going up into those hills over there."

"What hills?" he said, and how was he to know? Even from the intersection of 13th and Myrtle, there wasn't a hill in sight.

Come Saturday, though, the fog lifted and Eli could see the hills even from Meridian. "Beautiful," he murmured, and I said, "Wait'll we get up there. They're even prettier up close."

And of course, they are. May the deserts forgive me for saying this, but the mountains are what Idaho is all about. If there is anything special or unique about those who live here, it's the dumb luck we share for being so near to such a blessing. I have never questioned why so many of my state mates would choose to make their homes up there, away from it all. Even I have been tempted to have a 60-degree slope as a next-door neighbor and have the noise and trash of modern America muffled by the softness and obscurity of a billion trees.

But damn! Did I forget what a bunch of slobs mountain folk are, or have they gotten worse? See, before we took Eli, I hadn't been to Idaho City for a good 10 years, and I guess the memories of so much junk scattered out among the trees and trailer parks had faded. Either that, or there's more junk. As we pulled into town, the first thing we saw looked like the place where old backhoes go to die.

I was embarrassed. No other word for it. Did these fierce individualists go there to escape the hustle and bustle, to be farther from the maddening crowd and closer to nature? Or are they simply out to avoid neighborhood covenants and public eyesore regulations? Is this how these independent neo-mountain men revere our great outdoor Idaho, by making as much of it as they can reach with their 4x4s and ATVs look like an overturned dumpster?

And another thing: I agree that ancient license plates have a certain charm, but to use them as siding on your homes is carrying it a bit far, don't you think?

But perhaps I'm being mean. Perhaps I should have let this slovenly dog lie and accepted Idaho City for what it is. After all, Eli didn't seem to mind--he was too busy soaking in the ghosts of the tens of thousands of long-gone miners and barkeeps and whores who began the tradition of littering up Idaho's original capital--so why should I? And we did have a fine lunch of Frisbee-sized burgers in a quaint, raw wood establishment, decorated with portraits of Western icons Martha Jane Canary and William Bonney hung tastefully in amongst the license plates--and who am I to quibble over whether Calamity Jane or Billy the Kid ever set foot in Idaho City?

So, to those who call Idaho City home, I apologize if I've offended. But look, if you're going to leave so many rusty chains hanging about your town, you might expect them to be yanked now and then.